Terri McMahon in ‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’ at Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
By Becky Sarwate
Like the source of its inspiration, Bernhardt/Hamlet is clever, thoughtful, sometimes maddening and too dependent on the words of men to tell an ostensibly female story.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Theresa Rebeck’s new self-described “comedy” holds an unflinching mirror to global society’s persistent and often irrational gender-based double standards — through the character study of an insecure, needy artist wrapped comfortably in her own bravado. It should work, and at times it does, but the play is undercut by too much input from the very male reproducers of cultural ideology it purports to resist.
Bernhardt/Hamlet captures a biographic moment in the life of Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary late 19th- and early 20th-century French stage and screen actress. The bastard daughter of a successful French courtesan and one of her wealthy patrons, Ms. Bernhardt never flinched from her mysterious origins and in fact, turned them to her advantage. She seemed to make her own rules and is still celebrated for a form of feminist, economic and creative independence absolutely unheard of during that period.
When audiences drop in on Ms. Bernhardt in 1899 Paris, she is fresh off a critically praised but money-bleeding stage production written by her lover, French playwright Edmund Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac). The universally adored star is in the red. In the ultimate “go for broke” metaphor, she decides — late-career — to take on the part of a male actor’s lifetime, written by the most vaunted male poet in human history. In short, Ms. Bernhardt sets her sights on Hamlet. In the play’s first scene, we find Ms. Bernhardt humorously struggling with some of the Bard’s most ponderous monologues.
Sarah Bernhardt is aided in this quest to upend gender norms and earn box office returns in the process by a cast of loyalists that includes frequent acting collaborator Constant Coquelin (the exquisitely timed Larry Rando) and poster artist Alphonse Mucha (Gregory Linington). There’s a woman or two onstage throughout the production, but except for Mr. Rostand’s cuckolded wife Rosamund (Jennifer Lattimore), we don’t know their names. They are just set pieces. Upon realizing this, and not for the last time, I wondered if Ms. Rebeck is aware of how thoroughly Bernhardt/Hamlet steps on the feet of its own messages.
This rendering of Ms. Bernhardt offers a financially profligate legend who will never stop needing the approval and over-involvement of men in her life, be it her adult son Maurice (Luigi Sottile), her fellow actors or the transactional playwrights who trade art for sexual and emotional inspiration. She is in charge only in the pedantic, street-wise vein of a narcotics dealer.
Bernhardt had money, sexual magnetism and position – products judiciously withheld to advantage throughout her long career. However, minutes into Bernhardt/Hamlet it’s made clear that the now 55-year-old actress is no longer flush with any of these resources. She is, in fact, desperate. The publicly and critically shocking decision to dive headlong into Shakespeare’s alpha male tragedy is born, not of inspiration, but of a necessity to generate cash and headlines. Any theater history student knows this effort produced gossip, but certainly not riches or reborn critical acclaim. It was shortly after this experience that Ms. Bernhardt turned to film for salvation.
The material’s unacknowledged structural incongruity persists for over two and a half hours and is broken up only by long passages of dialogue from the work of male masters like Mr. Shakespeare and Mr. Rostand (John Tufts). As a critic and committed feminist, I found my patience routinely tested by these lengthy diversions from what should be the characters’ pursuit of their own deliberated truths – most notably, Ms. Bernhardt’s. Her relationship with Mr. Rostand as written is pathetic and depressing for both parties, only eclipsed by an utterly misguided collaborative attempt to remove the “poetry” from Shakespeare. Because somehow that places an actress on more equal gender footing? The idea is never adequately explained.
Mr. Linington’s performance as Alphonse Mucha is the highlight of the production. The actor hilariously conveys bemusement with the plot’s entire enterprise, and the outrageous personalities driving it, with a surprisingly light touch of philosophical pathos and forward-looking gendered enlightenment. It’s what missing from the play as a whole.
Bernhardt/Hamlet offers enjoyable bits of dialogue and Terri MacMahon certainly gives a spirited performance as the title character, but this Goodman Theatre production — a tribute to one of the most electric personalities in cultural history — is more forgettable than it should be, and makes one wonder what it means “to thine own self be true.”
170 North Dearborn, Chicago
Through October 20
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.